Life

Sunday 24 June 2018

Keeping the faith with our good folk of the cloth

'One local spoke of priests, who are so afraid of being attacked when they venture out that they hide their collars'. Stock Image
'One local spoke of priests, who are so afraid of being attacked when they venture out that they hide their collars'. Stock Image

Fiona O'Connell

Plenty of people in this country town will attend Mass today, exemplifying that expression "to keep the faith" - despite the evidence of recent years of scandalous abuse of power.

Hopefully their fidelity is not because they relish a return to an oppressive era, but due to the recognition that the majority of religious people are genuine folk who are spiritually inclined.

Certainly, even during a march in this country town last year to commemorate the unmarried mothers who were unceremoniously buried, some marchers lamented the injustice of all priests and nuns being tarred by the same brush as that minority who broke their vows with vile behaviour.

One local spoke of priests, who are so afraid of being attacked when they venture out that they hide their collars.

For surely these religious souls are also victims whose trust was betrayed. Like Reverend Richard O'Connell - or Father Dick, as friends and parishioners affectionately knew my uncle by. I remember him phoning after the Bishop Casey scandal, his voice shaking and heart broken that this supposedly superior soul, whose example he had followed was actually leading a duplicitous life. For who knows if this handsome, but humble man with cornflower blue eyes, wasn't himself ever tempted? Yet he held fast, serving parishes in New Zealand and then in Northern Ireland. Perhaps there are fewer vocations these days, not only because some Church tenets are distasteful to modern minds, or the arguably inhumane challenge of celibacy. For the life of a priest must be deeply unpalatable to the power-mongers for whom the Church once acted as a magnet. "There are some good ones and some bad ones," says one older local of the clergy - though he thinks many in the old days lacked the courage of their celestial convictions. "When the parish priest died, they didn't want the clay to go down on top of them. The gravedigger used to build blocks - red brick - all around and they put the coffin down on a concrete base and laid a cover over it. That was standard practice."

Whereas, practising priests are well-rounded individuals who are entitled to their feet of clay - as Father Martin reminded the congregation at my uncle's funeral some years ago, when he told them that Father Dick was also: "Dick the cook and jam maker; Dick the great gardener who landscaped our new grotto at St Anthony's; Dick the Irishman, Dick the smoker; Dick the colleague who spent time each evening with his fellow priests reviewing the day; Dick the comic, Dick the reader, Dick the wise man, Dick the storyteller, Dick the talker but not the listener, Dick the stubborn perfectionist."

He added that my uncle "prayed with the doctor at Belfast City Hospital who told him that nothing more could be done for him... There was no fear or sadness about the prospect of death". Nor reason to regret a life spent keeping the faith.

Sunday Independent

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